The Aisles Have Eyes

The Aisles Have Eyes

How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power

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  • Eye Opening
  • Background


University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Joseph Turow writes of a father who first learned of his teen-aged daughter’s pregnancy when Target mailed maternity-related sales offers to his home. How could the department store know she was pregnant before her family knew? Turow reports that the US has entered a new world of marketing in which online and brick-and-mortar retailers can collect and analyze unprecedented amounts of personal information about shoppers. An online retailer can track not just your progress through its site, but your jumps to other sites. Real-world stores can do similar things by exploiting smartphone apps, Wi-Fi, cameras and GPS. Their aim is to compile enough data to craft personalized messages for individual consumers; they want to know if a shopper is pregnant or low on shaving cream so they can send ads at opportune times. By combining tracking with data mined from sources like barcode scans or credit card sales, retailers can – for example – make a coupon for chocolates pop up on your phone when you’re standing in the candy aisle trying to resist temptation. Turow’s book is a fascinating, sometimes frightening look at recent advances in market-based surveillance as well as the ways retailers are training customers to accept growing levels of intrusion. getAbstract recommends his report to marketers, retailers, consumers and privacy advocates.


The New Surveillance

In the early 21st century, traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores realized they had to revamp their business model to survive. Most department stores, supermarkets and other retail institutions had already realized that they couldn’t compete on price alone against Walmart and other discounters. Online retailers such as Amazon posed a new threat by using digital media and tracking to compile a treasure trove of data on their customers.

To compete, retailers had to reproduce e-stores’ tracking and targeting in the real world. They needed to mine their databases to “discriminate” among customers – to identify the most profitable shoppers so they could send personalized advertisements and offers directly to them. Such initiatives required a new level of surveillance and intrusion into the personal lives of customers. But first, stores had to get consumers to feel comfortable with this kind of tracking as well as to accept that giving private information to retailers is a normal part of their shopping.

Equal Customers

Retail marketing wisdom in the second half of the 19th century and throughout the...

About the Author

Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, is a fellow of the International Communication Association and has won a Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Communication Association.

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